The Israeli media reported last week that the US government demands Israel will transfer some territory from Area C to Area B. These reports have not been confirmed yet, but they are already causing some trouble in the Israeli political system. What may be hiding behind this opaque formula may be the greatest breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 20 years.
Some background is required. The Oslo Accords, signed in September 1993, were an interim agreement. They had an expiration date, May 1999. As part of this temporary agreement, the West Bank was divided into three parts: Area A, a relatively small part of the WB which mostly included Palestinian cities (with the exception of Hebron/Al Khalil), was under Palestinian security and civil control; Area B was defined as an area in which Israel had security control but Palestinians had civil control; and Area C, some 60%+ of the WB, containing both all of the settlements (again, with the exception of Hebron) and most of the Palestinian agricultural land, were designated as intended for a future negotiation and under full Israeli control until an agreement is reached.
After Netanyahu beat Peres in the elections of 1996, he began to slowly whittle away at the Oslo Accords, using the tactics of infinite delays. Netanyahu kept negotiating the “Phases”: that was the term used for the parts of the redeployment. Israel was supposed to move territories away from Area C to Areas B and A. Netanyahu, with the assistance of American negotiator Dennis Ross, managed to draw as much time as possible while transferring as little land as possible, and the third “Phase” was never actually implemented.
In 1999 Netanyahu was defeated by that most bumbling Israeli PM, Ehud Barak, who lead us with a sure step to the Second Intifada. During that conflict, Israel announced time and again that the Oslo Accords are null and void. It expressed that by sending its army to systematically violate the so-called sovereignty of the Palestinians, by raiding Area A.
So, if the Oslo Accords are null and void, why do we still speak of Areas A, B and C? Mostly, because the system works exceedingly well for the Israeli occupation. By clinging to most of Area C, yet claiming they may yet be turned over to the Palestinians – as soon as they marshal their first squadron of airborne porcine – Israel managed to legitimize the quiet annexation of much of Area C. As documented by Yesh Din and other human rights NGOs, Israel has been engaged in a quiet yet determined campaign of ethnic cleansing in Area C through Jewish terrorism, backed by the IDF. The system is simple: bands of Jewish hoodlums repeatedly attack Palestinians as they try to work their land; the IDF stands aside or takes the side of the goons; the Palestinians abandon those plots out of fear; and after a while, settlers take over the “neglected” land. A senior minister in Netanyahu’s government, Naftali Bennet, even suggested simply annexing Area C. The Palestinians will get over it, he’s certain.
So this return of the “Phases”, as a Fury coming to claim vengeance for an old crime, comes a stunner to Netanyahu. Somewhere in the State Department there’s an official who remembers every trick Netanyahu pulled 20 years ago, and who knows this is the most damaging demand that can be made of Netanyahu.
While he has not officially declared it so, Netanyahu already promised Area C to the settlers. There’s little to no chance that you can move land from C to B without harming some settlement or outpost; you certainly cannot do so without stunting their development. Worse, moving land to B will allow Palestinians to build on these lands – and Israel is zealous about demolishing any “illegal” construction, as it is a fact on the ground and may make it harder to later expel Palestinians from it.
So now Netanyahu will have to choose whether to clash with the White House or with his settler base, who will not take this lying down. It probably doesn’t help him that the Israeli public no longer understands anything about what happens in the West Bank, so it will not understand what all the fuss is about. This simple yet brilliant demand may be the most significant step by the US government in 20 years.
That, however, assumes – and that’s one hell of an assumption – that the US government is serious about the move; that President Trump actually understands what it means; and that he will actually care enough about it to carry it through. Should that happen, though, the political crisis Netanyahu will be facing will dwarf anything attempted by the Obama administration.
I’ll be buying some popcorn.